Read an Excerpt
Words in Motion
I watched a letter that I had written start off on its journey in a howling snowstorm, high in the mountains of Finnish Lapland. The postman was a gnarled little Lapp and his means of transport a flat-bottomed sleigh, drawn by a reindeer....
After three or four hours and perhaps a spill or two in the snow,
it would travel five hours by bus and then a day and a night by train to the Finnish capital. From there it would go by ship,
steaming in the channel cut by an ice-breaker through the frozen sea to Sweden. Swedish postmen would convey it across their country and put it on an ocean liner. On arrival in New York,
the United States Post Office would take charge, and finally an American rural postman would deliver my letter on his rounds in a small Midwestern village. I had paid the equivalent of fourpence for all this service. What is more, I had paid the Finnish Government alone, not the Swedes or Americans.
LAURIN ZILLIACUS, From Pillar to Post: The Troubled History of the Mail
The success of mail in modern society is, to this day, something of a marvel. By our simply dropping a letter into an iron box, an object we have held and inscribed with words that only we can form may travel around the globe in a matter of days. On such a journey mail has been carried by foot and by horse, by chariot and by pigeon; it's journeyed by balloon and by bicycle, by train, truck, steamboat, pneumatic tubes, airplane, and even missiles. If a thing can move, it has probably carried mail. Bringing this service to people without a title took thousands of years. Roads had to be carved into fields and blasted through mountain passes; durable, cheap writing utensils had to be invented and men and women organized into labor forces. To this day, the U.S. Postal Service is the second-largest employer of civilian labor in America, with nearly 800,000 employees (compared with 181,000 in the UK, 160,000 in Germany, and 100,000 in France).
In ancient civilizations, mail was haphazard for most people a luxury, a stab in the dark. So the act of sending and receiving a letter was a momentous occasion. Without the highly efficient systems we possess today, letters were delivered informally, through friends or acquaintances planning to travel to a certain location. Along the way the messenger might be robbed, injured, or killed; the absence of a reply was so common that many ancient letters contained complaints about the failure of the recipient to respond to a missive. It would be hard to blame the messenger, though.
There was very little letter technology. Although clay envelopes dating back to several thousand years b.c. have turned up in Turkey, the paper envelope is a recent invention. Until the late 1800s, schoolchildren in America learned to fold a letter so that it didn't need one. The stamp, which came into being in India and England in the 1840s, is new, too, along with paper (which appeared in 3500 b.c.), to say nothing of pens (an invention of Egypt in 3000 b.c.) and zip codes (first used in the United States in 1963). Prior to all these developments, people addressed letters on the back of the missive itself or right on top of the text. Seals were important for this reason: they were a stamp of authenticity.
The history of mail is a tale of how, with the invention of postal systems and the democratization of their use, words began to knit more than just nations together. Words written by hand, then carried by the saddlebags of travelers, kept friendships alive and gave shape and texture to the daily experiences and the thoughts of people who wanted to communicate but were not within speaking distance of one another. In arcing across that gap, letters and mail helped create (and remind us of ) another gap the one between the inside and outside world. "It's separation that weaves the intrinsic world," Hélène Cixous writes of letters. "A fine, tender separation...like an amniotic membrane that lets the sound of blood pass through."
Mail has been the world's most important artery for transmitting our pulse across that separation. As words and then language were democratized and mail extended to larger parts of the world's population, that sound has become louder, syncopated, cacophonous. Governments and businesses have listened in; tricksters and thieves have posed as lovers and bearers of good news. Our current age is not the first in which people struggled to keep their inbox tidy. And speed, that perpetual, beckoning messenger, threatens to obliterate the very thing distance that made us want to write to begin with. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First, the mail just had to get there.
The Pillar of Empires
In the beginning, mail was a tool of a few of governments and militaries and kings. It's not hard to fathom its usefulness. A well-organized postal service knit enormous stretches of land together; it announced news of battles lost and won, collected intelligence, and delivered the occasional expression of courtly love. Not surprisingly, all the major early empires had some system of carrying letters from one place to the next: the Aztecs, the Incas, the Chinese, the Assyrians, the Romans, the Mauryans. In most cases only government officials could use the service. This was not an enormous deprivation, as most citizens could not read or write. In very important circumstances, they could have letters written for and read to them.
In the sixth century B.C., the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great boasted a well-organized relay service that could carry mail at a rate of up to a hundred miles a day. The man carrying the message would ride from one post to the next, where he would trade his tired horse for a fresh one, rest, then continue upon his journey. Herodotus sang this system's praises when he wrote in the histories a comment now inscribed on the Farley Post Office Building in New York City: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
The Persians' mail service, like so many, was not a benign network, however. It was a tool for making war and controlling an expanding population, upon whom the postal carriers spied and reported back. All the emperors did it. Kublai Khan had more than ten thousand postal stations and some fifty thousand horses at his disposal and the people who lived near the postal stations learned to fear the carriers. Caliph Abu Jafar Mansur, who ruled the Arabian Empire in the eighth century, expressed mail's military importance most bluntly: "My throne rests on four pillars and my rule on four persons: a blameless cadi [chief justice], an energetic chief of police, an honest minister of finance, and a faithful postmaster, who gives me true information about everything." In 860, the Islamic caliphate boasted 930 post stations.
News of military victories traveled via these early official postal systems, as did instructions for slaughter. As Laurin Zilliacus reminds us, the Book of Esther describes "the use of posts to order the slaughter of the Jews throughout Persian-ruled territory, and then the swift sending of the counter-order that saved them and turned the tables on their persecutors."
"And he wrote in the name of the king Ahasueres and sealed it with the king's ring, and sent letters by posts on horseback," goes the verse, "riding on swift steeds that were used in the king's service, bred of the stud." All of the books of the New Testament, save the Gospels, are written in the form of letters.
It was not always horses doing the carrying, however. The Arabs later pioneered the use of pigeons. The Greek city-states reserved some of their loftiest poetry for the mind-boggling feats of their athlete-runners. They were known as Hemerodromes and were often called into service when a very important message was to be delivered. Philonides, the courier and surveyor for Alexander the Great, once ran from Sicyon to Elis 148 miles in a day. Wealthy families had stables of runners, and since nearly all the work was taken care of by their slaves, citizens of leisure had little to do but share their thoughts and gossip in letters to one another. Not surprisingly, a huge volume of correspondence was produced during the height of Greek civilization.
Augustus Caesar established one of the most impressive ancient postal services. It relied upon the Roman Empire's superior road network, with stopping-off points or post houses where couriers could rest and trade horses. It is for this reason that the word "post" comes from the Latin positus, meaning "fixed," or "placed." Mail traveled by horse and chariot, and the postmen of the era wore feathers in their caps, signifying speed. The service was eventually expanded to the general public those who could write and afford it. When the Roman Empire fell, the network collapsed, and organized communication throughout western Europe disappeared with it.
Filling the Gap Where Governments Leave Off
Guilds, trading companies, feudal lords, and marauding armies maintained private messaging systems after the fall of the Roman Empire, but only the Catholic Church possessed anything approaching the organization of the service Caesar had run from Rome. During the medieval period apostolic and pastoral letters "circulated doctrinal rulings, decisions of Episcopal synods, temporal and political matters," as University of California professor Charles Bazerman has written. The growing orders of monks also kept in touch through lay brothers traveling from one monastery to the next, trips that could take as long as several months, carrying scrolls called rotulae, an early, low-tech version of a Listserv. A scroll would leave a central monastery with simply, say, a list of names of brothers or benefactors who had died and ought to be remembered. At each monastery an addition would be made to the scroll, the local abbot acknowledging receipt of the message and perhaps adding comments or further news. The additions were attached by "thin intertwining parchment strips, so that the lengthening scroll continued to be a very long single sheet," as Zilliacus describes. One rotula dating from 1122 is 28 feet long and 10 inches wide, covered with writing on both sides. It contained one piece of news, the death of Abbot Saint Vital; all 206 entries that followed paid tribute, some in prayers, some in poetry.
In Europe, a single family kept mail going outside the realm of government for several centuries. The princely Thurn und Taxis clan carried the mail from Rome to Brussels and beyond, beginning with Ruggiano de Tassis, who began a postal service in Italy. In the early 1500s, they established a postal service based in Brussels and reaching to Rome, Naples, Spain, Germany, and France by courier. The service lasted until the eighteenth century, when it was purchased by an heir to the Spanish throne.
But the story of the post is not concerned only with past events.
It is a continuing saga of man's attempts to shrink the world by improving the communication of the written word.
DMITRY KANDAOUROFF, Collecting Postal History: Postmarks, Cards and Covers
Bridging the Darkness
It took another three centuries for mail to resemble anything we would recognize today. Most people were illiterate, and paper was enormously expensive. For a woman to mail a letter from the American colonies to England in 1650, for example, she would have had to be exceptional indeed. In From Pillar to Post, Zilliacus imagines such a letter's journey. The woman would have had to pick out a piece of rag paper, inscribe her message, then fold it four or five times, bind it in silk and seal it with wax, and perhaps draw a sign of the cross on it to signal that this letter traveled under the sign of Providence. Then there was the issue of the recipient's address, which required a bit of space: "To my most noble brother, Mr. John Miles Breton," wrote one woman, "at Ye barber shoppe which lieth in the land hard against Ye taverne of Ye Great Square in shadow of Ye Towne Hall in Stockholm, these."
After she took it to her local tavern America's first postman, Richard Fairbanks, pulled pints as his day job the letter would have to jump aboard a trading vessel and essentially bribe its way across the seas and every step of the way. It was expensive and very likely bound for failure. "Letters were treasured," writes Frances Austin in "Letter Writing in a Cornish Community in the 1790s," "read to neighbors and handed round to friends. Items of news were passed on, often almost verbatim." In one case, Austin discovered that a woman had copied a letter from her brother and mailed copies to each of her siblings.
Imagine, then, living at this time. If you emigrated to a new country and left relatives behind, they would in all likelihood be lost to you forever. At the close of day, eating by candlelight, going to sleep in the obsidian darkness beneath a sky punctured by a blizzard of stars and unmarred by the electric pulse of distant cities or the blinking of far-off satellites, you would be alone, save for those around you. A knock at the door could spell danger or bad news. If the visit brought a letter from far away, it would probably feel like a small miracle. "The letters delivered in the countryside have marvelously multiplied," wrote Richard Jeffries in The Life of the Fields in 1884, "but still the country people do not treat letters offhand. The arrival of a letter or two is still an event; it is read twice or three times, put in a pocket and looked at again."
The Dawn of the Golden Age of Letter Writing
Between the dawn of the printing press and the end of the early to middle nineteenth century, societies arose in England, France, and Germany that broke down the barriers that had previously kept many people in the dark concerning the written word. Books became more available and began crossing national boundaries. By 1873, more than 129 million book packets traveled through the post every year in Great Britain.
The printing press and changes in the epistemological makeup of religions forged the way for a new reading public. In many Christian religions, only pastors and priests were trusted with the word of God. Besides, books were scarce; monks used to teach from texts chained to the lectern. In Sweden in the eighteenth century, though, the Lutheran Church issued an injunction that everyone must be able to read the word of God, and a massive literacy campaign was launched. Within a hundred years the nation boasted a 100 percent literacy rate. The decline of illiteracy in England was equally sharp but took much longer. Between 1500 and 1900, literacy rates rose from 10 percent to 95 percent for men and from less than 5 percent to 95 percent for women. In the early American colonies, where religious injunction required that believers be able to read the Bible themselves, men had a 100 percent literacy rate.
Mandatory schooling helped democratize words, too. In 1790, "Pennsylvania made provision in its constitution to provide free education to the poor, an effort endorsed by a number of cities and states in the first half of the nineteenth century," according to Naomi S. Baron in From Alphabet to Email. In 1827, Massachusetts underwrote common schools through taxation, and in 1852 New York was the first state to require statewide compulsory education. The earliest English public schools were chartered to educate the poor, but it wasn't until the middle of the eighteenth century that religious organizers began providing systematic day school and Sunday school education. Parliament started funding schools in 1833, while also restricting child labor, and by 1880, all of England and Wales "were required to establish minimum education standards."
Letter-writing manuals sprang up to allow the "middling sort" to "pursue their claims to social refinement and upward mobility," as one scholar put it. One of the most popular, Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions, was published by Samuel Richardson in 1741 and portrayed letter writing as "suitable for all occasions in life and for all people in society." At the same time, penmanship manuals, spelling books, grammar books, and dictionaries took off. Between 1750 and 1800, nearly four hundred such works were published in the United States alone. Guidebooks to letter writing multiplied, in the process transforming the use of the English language. The oral quality of early letters returned and was encouraged: "When you write to a friend," wrote W. H. Dilworth in The Complete Letter-Writer, "your letter should be a picture of your heart." "When you sit down to write a letter," another advised, "remember that this sort of writing should be like conversation." Dilworth again: "Your language should be so natural...the thoughts may seem to have been conceived in the very words...and your sentiments to have sprung up naturally like lilies of the field."
In a new development and with increasing regularity, these appeals were directed at women. Until this point, it was generally assumed that only men wrote letters. But from the mid-eighteenth century, the gender division of letter writing began to be questioned publicly. The Ladies Complete Letter Writer appeared in London in 1763 and was imported to America. "Your sex," wrote one adviser, "much excels our own, in the ease and graces of epistolary correspondence."
Letter writing also became an important part of childhood instruction, in both England and America. Benjamin Franklin believed young boys should learn by putting pen to paper to send a message. "The Boys should be put on Writing Letters to each other on any common Occurences, and on various Subjects, imaginary Business, & c. containing little Stories," he wrote in Idea of the English School in 1751. "Accounts of their late Reading, what Parts of Authors please them, and why....In these they should be taught to express themselves clearly, concisely, and naturally, without affected Words or high-flown Phrases."
Franklin extended such advice to writers of business letters. In April 1777, he replied at length to a gentleman who had written offering some assistance to the American colonies in the coming War of Independence: "Whoever writes to a Stranger should observe 3 Points; 1. That what he proposes be practicable. 2. His Propositions should be made in explicit Terms so as to be easily understood. 3. What he desires should be in itself reasonable. Hereby he will give a favourable Impression of his Understanding, and create a Desire of further Acquaintance."
Inventing the Modern Post Office
For letter writing to really explode, however, it needed to be affordable to the masses. Charles I was the first monarch toextend mail service to his subjects in 1635, largely because he needed money, and even then it was too expensive for most people to use it. In 1680, William Dockwra, an ex-merchant in the African slave trade, set up a penny post in London. For the first time, anyone could mail a letter anywhere in the city for a penny the equivalent of roughly half a pound, or $1, today which was a boon to business but not much help to people whose relatives and friends lived a hundred miles away. The government absorbed the service and then later squashed an attempt to establish a half-penny post in London. Sending letters was still very expensive, since rates were charged by distance and letters had to travel by armed coach. Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, however, could use the service for free.
Most of the features of modern mail come from the suggestions of a retired schoolteacher named Rowland Hill, who in 1837 published Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicality. Hill argued that mail should cost a penny, wherever it went; he believed the postage should be paid in advance; and he wisely suggested that envelopes be used. By 1840, every one of these suggestions had been taken to heart by the British postal service, the Royal Mail, and letter writing had exploded. Between 1839 and 1853, English letter volume shot up sevenfold, from 75.9 million per year to 410.8 million. By 1873, the Royal Mail was handling 1 billion pieces of mail, employing 42,000 men and women, and boasting more than 12,000 post offices.
The Royal Mail quickly went global. As early as 1860, mail traveled once a month via the Suez Canal between Great Britain and the Australian colonies, including Tasmania and New Zealand. It was dispatched from Southampton on the twelfth of each month. Postage for these international shipments had to be paid in advance: it was thirty-three cents per half ounce for a letter. Newspapers were sent for just four cents each.
Most impressively, the Royal Mail made money doing this. In 1860, a report showed that it had earned $6.5 million for the government. By 1873, the sum was creeping up to $8 million. The service became the model for mail systems the world around, its facility paving the way for a heyday of print. People wrote and read more and thereby began to develop a sense of their own ideas. The events of their lives mattered because they were being recorded. They wanted to be heard. Letters pages, like those Richard Steele had inaugurated in The Tatler and The Spectator in the previous century, filled with an array of new voices.
British citizens also seemed to enjoy testing the limits of this new civic invention. A report in 1874 revealed that among the curios to turn up in the dead-letter office were a horned frog (alive), a still squirming stage beetle, white mice, snails, an owl, a kingfisher, a rat, carving knives, a fork, a gun, and cartridges. One dead letter turned out to have more than £2,000 in banknotes in it; another, which arrived opened, was stuffed with Turkish currency. Thought to be old lottery forms, it was given to children of postal officers to play with.
The Business of Sending Mail in America
Tasked with covering enormous distances in a countryside prone to violence, where gun ownership was a constitutionally defended right, and a strong federal government was deeply distrusted, the U.S. mail faced far greater problems than the British. Early mail routes were marauded; carriers, who had to ferry all letters COD, many times couldn't collect or simply pocketed the payments; bootleg companies covered the same terrain, often at cheaper rates. The postal service was also seen as a sinecure, a system of patronage. Far more letters than should have been were franked or sent for free, depriving the fledgling network of much-needed revenue. As postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin appointed his older brother postmaster of Boston; when James Franklin stepped down from the $1,000-a-year post, Benjamin Franklin appointed his brother-in-law as his successor.
And mail remained, for a long time, hideously expensive. In the early 1800s, it cost twenty-five cents to send a single sheet of paper more than four hundred miles. In a country where the average wage was a dollar a day this was beyond the reach of most Americans, and, not surprisingly, mail volume remained very low. In 1815, the entire United States was serviced by just three thousand post offices, doing a little more than $1 million of business. Two decades later, mail began traveling by rail and then by private stagecoach companies, operating under contracts that were so lucrative that if a company failed to get them renewed it immediately retired from the business. But the two coasts remained separate. To get to California, mail had to travel around Cape Horn, after which coaches and trains took it to the Oregon Territory.
One of the most famous chapters of U.S. mail history involved the shrinkage of delivery times across the country to a matter of days a vast improvement, considering that in 1845 it took President James Polk six months to get a message to California, and a necessary one financially once gold was discovered in the state in 1848 and San Francisco's population rocketed from 500 to 150,000 in just three decades. News of discoveries had to travel somehow. The problem was serious enough that in 1855 Congress even allocated $35,000 to exploring the use of camels to haul mail from Texas to California.
As has happened throughout the story of communication in America, government turned to private industry to solve the problem. Postmaster General Aaron Brown later awarded a $600,000 contract to the stagecoach entrepreneur John Butterfield to carry mail end to end if he could do it in twenty-five days. By 1858, after spending $1 million to set up a network of two hundred relay stations, two thousand horses and mules, and more than twelve hundred employees, Butterfield had done it. There was even a manual of employee behavior, in which lay this recommendation: "18. INDIANS. A good look-out should be kept for Indians. No intercourse should be had with them, but let them alone; by no means annoy or wrong them."
Coaches left from Saint Louis and arrived in San Francisco, carting mostly mail but passengers, too, in quarters cramped enough to make airline "coach" seats seem a luxury especially as coach travelers paid $200 in 1860, the equivalent of $4,500 today, for a one-way fare from Saint Louis to San Francisco. Raphael Pumpelly, who rode the line west to Tucson, remembered, "As the occupants of the front and middle seats faced each other, it was necessary for these six people to interlock their knees; and there being room inside for only ten of the twelve legs, each side of the coach was graced by a foot, now dangling near the wheel, now trying in vain to find a place of support."
But for those with money to spend, a need to travel, and a desire for adventure, it was worth the discomfort. The travel also facilitated the exploration and imagining of the American landscape. In Roughing It, Mark Twain described traveling around the western part of the United States on several coaches just like the one Pumpelly packed himself into, though not of the Butterfield line. "We three were the only passengers, this trip," he wrote. "We sat on the back seat, inside. About all the rest of the coach was full of mail bags for we had three days' delayed mails with us. Almost touching our knees, a perpendicular wall of mail matter rose up to the roof. There was a great pile of it strapped on top of the stage, and both the fore and hind boots were full. We had twenty-seven hundred pounds of it aboard."
It says a lot about America's idea of itself that Butterfield's sensible, pioneering line which never suffered an Indian attack in the two and a half years of its operation and never missed its twenty-five-day deadline was eclipsed by the even shorterlived Pony Express. Speed and brutality trumps efficiency in the imagination. This colorful solution was proposed by California senator William Gwin, a pro-slavery southerner who once participated in a duel (neither party suffered a gunshot, but a donkey was killed) and later traveled to France in 1864 in an attempt to interest Napoleon III in settling American slave owners in Sonora, Mexico. Gwin was a strong proponent of westward expansion and had carried through the U.S. Senate a bill appropriating money for steamers traveling between California, China, and Japan. He was also an early proponent of purchasing Alaska from the tsar. His notion of mail would be similarly spectacular.
In January 1860, Gwin met with the Missouri freighter William H. Russell to discuss establishing a ten-day relay service to California. Gwin was enthusiastic enough to encourage them to go ahead; they had sixty days to do the job. Ads for riders went out in March of that year. They recruited 80 "skinny" young fellows, whose weight was not to exceed 125 pounds, and 400 tough characters to staff 190 relay stations over a 1,900-mile route from Saint Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. It was dangerous work, for which the young men were paid $50 per month plus room and board. In the beginning, the riders rode with bow knives, revolvers, and at least one rifle, eventually thinning down to just a pistol.
It was also expensive: $5 per half ounce. The saddlebags contained letters, some relaying news of gold discoveries in California, and condensed versions of eastern newspapers. In just 18 months of business, the Pony Express transported 30,000 pieces of mail a total of 650,000 miles. Its fastest delivery set a record in carrying President Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address from Saint Joseph to Sacramento in seven days and seventeen hours. If only Lincoln had had Obama's BlackBerry! At just fifteen years of age, William F. Cody was the youngest pony rider to carry the mail. On his second year on the job, he rode up to a station and, discovering that his relief rider had been killed, rode on with a new horse, covering some 384 miles without rest.
Once the telegram reached California, however, the legendary service soon became cost-inefficient. The last Pony Express ran in October 1861, just eighteen months after its beginning. Its accomplishments were eulogized in the Sacramento Bee: "Farewell Pony...Farewell and forever, thou staunch, wildernessovercoming, swift-footed messenger....Thou wert the pioneer of the continent in the rapid transmission of intelligence between its people, and have dragged in your train the lightning itself, which in good time, will be followed by steam communication by rail. Rest upon your honors; be satisfied with them, your destiny has been fulfilled a new and higher power has superseded you."
Making a Nation with Words
Around the time the telegram began to take flight, postal rates plummeted. The Postal Acts of 1845 and 1851 reduced the cost of a letter to a flat three cents to anywhere in the United States. The rate wasn't raised again until 1958, when it climbed to four cents. The effect on mail volume was overwhelming. Residential post office boxes, a hallmark of America, began going up in 1858 and soon became ubiquitous. In 1840, the average American sent three letters a year; by 1900 that figure was sixty-nine letters per annum and the total volume of letters outnumbered telegrams fifty to one. By 1950, the mail was almost out of control; in 1960, the U.S. Post Office was handling 63 billion pieces of mail the equivalent of 350 pieces per year for every man, woman, and child in America.
From the Outpost to the Common
In the rapidly expanding country, the post office became one of the most important public commons. "Most early postmasters were storekeepers," wrote an ex-postmaster general, Arthur Summerfield, in his book U.S. Post Office. "Their places of business were the community centers. They knew everyone in town and the surrounding countryside. They were respected. They knew something of elementary account-keeping. Having property, they were responsible and could be bonded."
Mail carriers became people of note, and from a very early time some of them were women. When Franklin's brother John died on the job in Boston, Mrs. John Franklin became not just the first woman postmaster, but also the first woman to hold public office in America. Women postmasters followed in Baltimore (1775) and Charleston, Maryland (1786). The first female carrier went to work in North Carolina in 1794. By 1893, there were 6,335 postmistresses, some of whom juggled several jobs at once, like this woman, described in an early report about mail carriers around the United States:
Mrs. Clara Carter of West Ellsworth, Maine drives the mail coach from that place to Ellsworth, seven miles away....
This energetic woman rises early in the morning, does the cooking for five in the family, starts at seven for the city with the mail and numerous errands that are given to her without memoranda. She returns at noon, gets dinner, goes to the blueberry fields and picks ten quarters of berries or more in the afternoon, and in the cool of evening does the family washing and ironing and other household tasks. This amount of work she performs six days in the week, varying the routine in the afternoon, out of berry season, by sewing for the family. She finds time, too, to play on the parlor organ an hour or more in the evening, or to entertain visitors.
Prior to rural phone service, the postman "would carry news of forest fires, of accident, or an outbreak of illness on a farm, to the nearest communication center. Unofficially he (or she) became the bearer of local news, or gossip if you wish." People who read the news wrote to one another about what they learned, especially emigrants in America; it was a way to connect the past with the present over here with what was once home. "I see in the newspaper that they have had some trouble between Sweden and Norway," wrote Olaf Larsson from Kellogg, Idaho, in a 1905 letter.
The mail was also a highly effective tool at keeping new emigrants in touch with one another. Here's a letter Pet Stred sent to his brother in Sweden from Bay Horse, Idaho, in 1897:
I am well and work and grind away a little every day but I have been sick, not so that I was bedridden, but I was still very ill a few days ago but am now completely healthy again. I have worked at various jobs this summer. For a while I worked on a road that was being built. One month I worked for a farmer and now I work at a smelter where they smelt ore that is taken out of the mines. That is hard work and takes real Swedish strength to bear with it. The work is very tough and it is hot like a certain place [meaning Hell; underlined in original]. I do not know how long I will stay here, when I get tired of it [I] will have to try something else. Those who are young and inexperienced should try everything.
As in England, some people enjoyed seeing just how far the mail could go. In 1903, one man set up a Nonsense Correspondence Club and began sending unusual items through the mail. "I owed a friend a dollar," the man wrote. "I mailed him a silver dollar with a two cent stamp stuck on one side and the address on the other. He received it." His next prank, however, created more havoc. When dining in Key West, he filched some croquettes off the dinner table, wrapped them in tinfoil, and mailed them to Philadelphia, labeled natural history specimens. The packet burst in the mail, and, worried that it had scattered someone's remains, the Philadelphia post office sent the remains to the morgue and placed them on ice. It then mailed him a letter saying he would be responsible for the cost of this treatment.
As the range of communication options proliferated and messages traveled ever faster, two inventions made them go swifter yet. The first actually made it easier to write, once people learned how to use the darn thing. Although the earliest model dates back to 1714, the typewriter was finally perfected in 1868 by a newspaperman, printer, and politician named Christopher Latham Sholes. He tried to sell the rights to manufacture the machine to Western Union, which turned him down, eventually settling with the Remington Arms Company, which made farm machinery, sewing machines, and, most famously, guns.
Remington took the typewriter to market in 1873, and it raised a stir at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, while the Hammond typewriter the first single-element machine, which featured a curved keyboard stole the show at the Paris Exposition of 1889.
Mark Twain purchased one of Remington's earliest models in 1874 for $125 and became the first author to submit a manuscript typed on one. In a letter to his brother, Twain described the way the machine established an element of speed in writing that had not yet been there before even though one could, as yet, type only in capital letters:
I AM TRYING TO GET THE HAND OF THIS NEW FANGLED WRITING MACHINE. BUT I AM NOT MAKING A SHINING SUCCESS OF IT....I PERCEIVE I SHALL SOON & EASILY ACQUIRE A FINE FACILITY IN ITS USE....
I BELIEVE [THE MACHINE] WILL PRINT FASTER THAN I CAN WRITE.
Aside from Twain, most of the typewriter's early users were not authors, however, but rather stenographers and typists, whose numbers in America shot up from 154 in 1870 to 112,364 in 1900. Many of them were women. "Some of the more enterprising of the girls secure an office in a big building, where lawyers are numerous, put out a sign, and find employment all day long," wrote a reporter in The New York Times. "The regularly-employed girls get $10 and $12 a week, but the owners of the machines manage in some cases to earn so much as $20 and $25."
And they typed fast. To be a member of the New York State Stenographers' Association, for example, one had to be able to take dictation at 150 words per minute for five consecutive minutes. The first woman ever hired by New York City's Health Department was Miss Martha N. Manning, a typist. Typewriting contests began to be held. One of the earliest was won in New York City by F. E. McGurrin of Salt Lake City, who then closed the contest with an encore act of typewriting 101: words a minute while blindfolded. In 1889, a woman named Miss M. E. Orr "made her fingers fly over the keys for a minute and 139 correctly printed words was the result."
Henry James briefly made dictation a craze when, to overcome a writer's block, he hired an amanuensis to take dictation. He found that he wrote more, his sentences grew longer, and he could work only to the rhythmic click of the Remington. The shadow of this method was large enough that when William Dean Howells was interviewed by The New York Times in 1882, he was asked if he, too, wrote by dictation. "I do not dictate," he said, "but use a little Hall typewriter. I use it entirely if I have a clear block of stuff before me; if I have to come down to close quarters and feel a little anxious about my work I take a pen."
With female typists in the closest proximity to those giving them dictation, the workplace became newly sexually charged. It took some getting used to for both employees and their families. In Atlantic City in 1892, two high-profile court cases revolved around men who had married their "typewriters" there was no distinction, apparently, between the women and the machines they worked upon. Relatives of two different men who had married their typewriters attempted to annul the marriages, stating that the men had not been of sound mind when the marriage had been entered into.
The Great Postcard Craze
Oddly, the change in writing practices that had a greater impact on what people wrote to one another in private was a small, square piece of card the carte de visite or, as it soon began to be called, the postcard. Rumor had it that the thing had been invented on the Left Bank in Paris, where a man spilled his coffee on a square piece of writing stock. The stain made an interesting shape, so he affixed a stamp and an address to it and mailed the card to a friend. In America, another story revolved around "an economical young woman in San Diego who had to pay postage to write her sweetheart, but who would not buy writing paper. She wrote her epistles in minute penmanship on the reverse side of a stamp and mailed only the stamp itself."
In any event, the first postcard was sent in England in 1871, and by 1873 more than 72 million of them per year were dropped into the British post. That same year, 26 million were sent in Germany, which later became the nation that printed most of the world's postcards. The postcard craze had arrived. It's easy to see why people took to it. A postcard was a cheap, relatively quick way to say, "Yes, I received your letter"; to send and receive, accept and decline invitations. Doodles, jokes, and romantic asides traveled this way at a fraction of thecost of a telegram.
In the era before cameras were portable and cheap to own, postcards allowed tourists to bring back some sort of visual rendering of where they had been. As Susan Sontag has noted, this newly created act of recording what had been seen led to an intellectual idea that all the world's visible things be they a painting or a pizza could be captured on film and, later, that the purpose of the travel was the obtaining of that image. Before this development, the way people recorded was that they remembered, or they sketched, if they had the inclination, or kept a private diary. What is unique about all of these activities is that each has a singular aura. Postcards, however, were massproduced.
That didn't bother most travelers. By the early 1900s, the postcard had become a full-fledged obsession in America as well. In 1906, it was estimated that one in eight Americans bought a postcard every day. The country spent more than $1 million on the little pieces of stationery each week, and in the course of just a few years they became available at more than eighty thousand merchants nationwide. Many of these stores began selling albums for collectors, which ranged from less than a dollar up to $15. Postcard clubs, which allowed people to trade postcards from faraway places, sprang up.
Postcards also became a way to teach geography. One New York state schoolteacher in a small rural town with no public library started a pen pal course between her pupils and foreign students in Africa, Australia, Ceylon, Cuba, Iceland, New Zealand, most of the countries of South America, and all of Europe. "The postcards brought children into touch with the whole world in a way no other means at their command would have done," wrote a newspaper reporter covering the story of the children's correspondence. Some places they received return cards from didn't even appear in their textbooks.
But the little invention was not without its abuses. A New York Times article in 1871 reported on behavior that resembles a print version of flaming (the practice on the Internet of harassing and criticizing someone publicly):
The handy little post-card has already been made the instrument of insult, ridicule or revenge. The anonymous letter has always held to be one of the most cowardly weapons of assault ever used among civilized beings; but with such letters the sting was limited in its application. The receiver might suffer, but he had the option of suffering alone....The postcard, however, enables concealed scoundrels to deprive their victims even of this discretion. Gross insolence or contemptuous epithets can now by this means be leveled....We regret to observe that many such instances have lately occurred in London, so many as to constitute a grave objection to the post-card system altogether....The temptation to call people liars and scoundrels in so safe a way, to accuse them of robbing hen-roosts or murdering their grandmothers, seems quite irresistible to many ingenuous souls, and impunity has apparently brought about something of an epidemic.
Swindlers, Snake Oil Men, and Peepers
Postcards and typewritten letters highlighted a growing problem with written communication: Can you trust the person on the other end of the line? Handwritten letters had their own signature of authenticity, but typewritten letters instantly created a different impression, one of professionalism and business-mindedness a fact exploited by some aspiring men, as revealed in this newspaper story:
The other day a lawyer had just finished a letter on his typewriter with the word "dictated" at the bottom of it. "Why did you add that to it when you wrote it yourself?" asked a friend. A look of pity filled the lawyer's face at the stupidity of his visitor. "My guileless, far-away correspondents," he said, "will believe that I am overrun with business and utterly unable to answer my own letters. If they regard it as a luxury for me to have a private secretary, why should I undeceive them?"
The growing lack of face-to-face communication also presented an ideal situation for all kinds of criminal or miscreant schemes. The earliest adopters of new modes of communication are often those engaged in illegal or unethical activity, who benefit greatly by being ahead of the curve. The newspapers of the 1880s were full of stories about swindles and heists perpetuated by the mail.
In 1884, an advertisement was placed in several Brooklyn papers: "ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS will be paid for information identifying the author of certain anonymous letters mailed to residents of the Nineteenth Ward during the last two weeks." The advertising copywriter should have been more specific. In fact, a batch of Valentines, some "written in a woman's angular hand," some composed by typewriter, had been sent to women around Brooklyn containing messages so lewd that The New York Times couldn't print them. Chaos had ensued. "In two families the marriage engagements of daughters have been broken off through the instrumentality of these letters."
In most cases, financial gain was the goal. A New York man procured a list of lumber dealers and opened correspondence with them. Letters to his bankers in Philadelphia to verify his creditworthiness would "bring the reply that Mr. Rowe was a fair, honorable business man." No sooner had the lumber been delivered, though, than he vanished. In the course of an investigation, an expert on the typewriter was called in to testify that the notes and the bank correspondence were the work of one man.
One of the most successful schemes of the day will ring bells for anyone who has received e-mails from a Nigerian attorney promising hidden millions. In 1887, two British men set up a business called the British-American Claim Agency in New York City, writing to people around the country and encouraging them to look up claims to estates of long-lost relatives in England. The London Times was made to appear an endorser of the scheme, and to light a fire under their "heirs," the amount the paymaster in Chancery had ready to deliver to them was, according to The Times, £77,693,769.
All the targets had to do to start claiming their rightful fortunes was to write to the office and pay a $2 fee. Five dollars secured an advertisement in London and $13.25 a guaranteed search. Police in the United States were tipped off to the heist by a judge, who shared the same downtown office building as the men behind the scheme; the two men, he said, had been receiving an unusual volume of mail. At the miscreants' office, law enforcement discovered that the two men had employed fourteen young women to type up the advertising circulars on which the British-American Claim Agency sent out its entreaties. In reality, no searches had ever been performed, complaints were ignored, and the two hauled in as much as $500 per day.
Finally, as more and more people communicated by letter, a larger question loomed: Could governments be trusted as they could not in the early days of mail to preserve the privacy of the post? Writing in 1960, Summerfield was adamant about the sacredness of first-class mail: "Its privacy is zealously guarded from the moment it is mailed until it is delivered. Not even the President may order it to be censored, or delay its delivery, except in time of war." This was a convenient caveat for a country regularly at war, as the United States was from late in 1939 through the 1960s and is again today.
In April 1976, a U.S. Senate panel discovered that the FBI, CIA, and several other government agencies had illegally monitored millions of telegrams and opened more than a quarter million letters. Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy were implicated. And it was not just a simple scan of letters. As Seymour Hersh reported, James Angleton, the longtime head of the CIA's counterintelligence division, was personally involved in a "series of (illegal) domestic mail intercepts that enabled the agency to learn how the American Federation of Labor was planning to use the millions of dollars in clandestine funds funneled to it by the C.I.A." According to one account, "Angleton would personally deliver copies of the letters to Allen Dulles and thereby 'made real hay with Allen' since 'it impressed Allen enormously to know in general' what the AFL was planning to do."
The Plague of Words
Swindles and con men and the occasional government peeper were not the only problems with the post as the world tipped into the twentieth century. There was also the sheer amount of it. Not everyone was pleased by the large numbers of letters and postcards flying across the plains. At the turn of the twentieth century, worries over the decadence of the age of letter writing popped up in opinion articles and among men and women who saw themselves as protectors of civil society. "There is no standard nowadays of elegant letter writing," said one woman, "as there used to be in our time. It is a sort of go as you please development, and the result is atrocious. Epistolary accomplishment is considered altogether too puerile a study for the strenuous work of higher education, while rapid note taking at lectures, etc., finishes the ruination of handwriting and style, the result being as you have just observed that our daughters write like housemaids and express themselves like schoolboys."
The postcard was often blamed for this drop-off. "It has frequently been remarked during recent years that the art and practice of letter writing has passed away, and the picture postal has helped on this tendency," wrote one correspondent in The New York Times. "People write less than they ever did, and yet they keep their friends at home posted as to their itinerary during a long trip better than ever before. The picture postal tells a story. That is why it is so popular." As a result, people heard from one another a lot more, especially when they traveled on vacation. "People will send tourist postcards when they would not write letters."
Letter-writing mavens in newspapers turned their attention away from simple epistolary etiquette and toward the more pressing problem of the letters one absolutely had to send. "Certain letters, however, must be written," opined Mrs. Van Rensselaer Cruger, writing under the pen name Julien Gordon; "there is no escape from their claims. These inevitables may be classed as follows: The Family letter; the friendly letter; the business letter; the letter of condolence or felicitation; the love-letter; the miscellaneous note."
Even President Theodore Roosevelt got into the act of scolding people for their prolixity. "A resolute effort should be made to secure brevity in correspondence and the elimination of useless letter writing," he argued in November 1905. "There is a type of bureaucrat who believes that his entire work and the entire work of the government should be the collection of papers in reference to a case, commenting with eager minuteness on each, and corresponding with other officials in reference thereto. These people really care nothing for the case, but only for the documents in the case. In all branches of the government there is a tendency greatly to increase unnecessary and largely perfunctory letter writing."
An unsigned commentary appeared soon after Roosevelt's scolding comments, applauding his appeal to people's sense of restraint. It's worth quoting at length for the way it captures the sense of fatigue, fatality, even, Americans felt when facing the future of words:
We hope the President will be a restraining influence on the flood of words both in correspondence and in books, but we fear the times are against him. They offer fatal facilities for verbal exuberance. Books today are published in vast numbers, less because authors have anything to say than because printing is easy and cheap and the presses have to be kept at work. So, too, the typewriters click out folio after folio in public offices, not because there is any real reason for that amount of writing, but because the machinery for producing it is at hand....
The stenographer, the typewriter and the printing press are invaluable agents of civilization, but they have their drawbacks. They have inundated us with a plague of words, and we wish that curtailment in the government service could be but the beginning of reform.
In some cases, though, it wasn't just bureaucrats adding to the blizzard of words. By the end of the nineteenth century, commentators began to complain about being badgered at home by news about political candidates. "Even the Republicans favor me with a tableful of campaign documents, possibly to keep me strong in faith," wrote William Drysdale in a piece entitled "Does Anybody Read Them?" in The New York Times on November 6, 1887. "It occurs to me that maybe these soul-stirring papers are sent to all the good Republicans, in hope that they may feel flattered by the little attention; but I am never flattered by the receipt of anything short of a Patent Office Report, or a bound volume from the Department of Agriculture. As I sweep all these documents into the waste basket with one grand swoop, they inspire me with only one thought. It is 'How the printers must smile, when they see an election coming on.'"
The Eighty-Letter Day, the Power, and the Glory
The basic postal rate at least in the United States didn't go up for another fifty years once it was first lowered, and even then it rose by just a cent. The era of postal overload was here to stay. Aside from businesses and governments, people who had come into a peculiar kind of modern existence being famous weathered this overload in exaggerated fashion. The prolific journalist and essayist H. L. Mencken felt duty-bound to respond within the same day out of "decent politeness." He also followed the do-unto-others rule: "If I write to a man on any proper business and he fails to answer me at once, I set him down as a boor and an ass." Therefore, every day, whether the mail brought ten or eighty letters, he read and responded to all of them. "My mail is so large," he said, "that if I let it accumulate for even a few days, it would swamp me."
Others had someone close by to do the answering. Thomas Edison received thousands of unsolicited letters per year and employed a fleet of male secretaries to craft his responses and sift the nuts from the fans. After winning the Nobel Prize in 1930, the American novelist Sinclair Lewis began to receive hundreds, including several appeals for help or employment. "I'll do everything for you," one woman wrote, "and when I say everything I mean everything." "My dear Miss," replied Lewis's wife, Dorothy Thompson, to her husband's admirer. "My husband already has a stenographer who handles his work for him. And, as for 'everything' I take care of that myself and when I say everything I mean everything."
But an even bigger problem had yet to be confronted: junk mail.
The Business of Moving Mail
When Henry Raymond unleashed The New-York Daily Times upon the city, he appealed to New Yorkers by letter:
The carrier of "The New-York Daily Times" proposes to leave [the newspaper] at this house every morning for a week, for the perusal of the family, and to enable them to receive it regularly. The Times is a very cheap paper, costing the subscriber only SIXPENCE a week, and contains an immense amount of reading matter for that price....It will contain regularly all the news of the day, full telegraphic reports from all quarters of the country, full city news, correspondence, editorials. At the end of the week the carrier will call for his pay; and a continuance of subscription is very respectfully solicited.
As people used the world's emerging postal services more often, business began to use it, too, in order to target customers. The rise of direct-mail solicitations was fast and had been part of life in the colonies from the beginning. The U.S. Postal Service has always operated second-class mail, through which magazines, newspapers, and advertisements travel at a loss, the reason being "that a postal system should help disseminate information as a public service and do so," Arthur Summerfield observed, "partly at least, at public expense." The Federalist Papers, essays on articles of the Constitution written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others, traveled this way, in the pages of the New York newspapers The Independent Journal, The New York Packet, and The Daily Advertiser, which in those days arrived by post.
But how much can be classified as information in the public service? Apparently a lot, and it took an energetic British man to truly exploit that wide definition. The advertising circular, which traveled in second-class mail, was invented by G. S. Smith in London in a borrowed office in 1868. Smith was just fifteen, and he addressed all the pleas for purchase by hand. Smith used halfpenny wrappers, owing to postal regulations. Within a short while, he had several men working for him and then an army. Before long his company could issue prospectuses for publicly traded companies in London (1.25 million copies for the Manchester Ship Canal Company) and in America (2.5 million copies for an American finance house). In the early 1900s, he was the world's biggest purchaser of envelopes, one of his orders clocking in at over 100 million of just one kind of envelope. By the time he died, he employed more than 300 men and 130 "girls." All of the letters sent out were addressed by hand.
Businesses began to solicit customers by catalog in the middle of the nineteenth century, the first produced by Aaron Montgomery Ward in 1872. Around the same time, companies began selling typewriters by mail. The huge increase in advertising mail led to the U.S. Post Office running a significant budget deficit at the turn of the twentieth century. Marketers got hold of mailing addresses and batched them into groups that could be sold. In December 1913, the president of the Kentucky Distillers Company offered to sell a mailing list of fifty thousand customers "each individual on the list is a regular user of liquor" to a Kansas City, Missouri, sanatorium for alcoholics. The Anti-Saloon League then duplicated the letter in a leaflet to show the lengths to which the greedy liquor industry would go to take advantage of its customers.
In the 1930s, looking to bolster its flagging earnings in the Great Depression, the U.S. Post Office began encouraging advertising mail, effectively putting the government into competition with the nation's newspapers (which couldn't function without advertisements). "If successful in any large way," complained Eugene Meyer, the publisher of The Washington Post, in November 1934, "[the U.S. Post Office's campaign] would naturally reduce the legitimate receipts of the daily newspapers of America and thereby weaken their position." Third-class bulk mail rates were introduced by the United States in 1928, and selling took off.
The phrase "junk mail" first appeared in 1954, and people began to fight back. A Connecticut man, irritated at the state's avowed practice of selling lists of its registered drivers and all the junk mail he received as a result of it, refused to tell the state's Department of Motor Vehicles his new address. The list upon which the man's name appeared had been sold to R. L. Polk & Co., a Detroit marketing firm, for $15,000. The company had been buying lists of registered drivers from all fifty states for thirty years. The man lost his case, and junk mail has proceeded apace. In 2003, 43 percent of U.S. mail was direct mail, up from 29 percent in 1980.
Electronic Brain to Sort Mail
As the number of pieces of mail entered the billions, post offices around the world began to creak under the pressure. The Canadian Post Office Department became the first to invest in electronic sorting machines. A scientist, Dr. Maurice Levy, was the first man to perfect such a machine, and it went into service in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal in 1957. The United States, which by 1960 had just one-fiftieth of the world's population but two-thirds of its mail, was not far behind. Machines were installed in major cities that made huge gains in sorting time: an electronic machine could sort 21,600 letters an hour, compared with the 1,500 managed by a good postal worker. Delivery times were speeded up by just 50 percent, though, since the biggest difficulty for the mail wasn't in the sorting but in getting it into and out of the eleven major metropolitan offices through which two-thirds of all American mail traveled.
Postmaster General Summerfield, however, was not to be deterred. "I will not be satisfied," he said in 1957, "until we can give patrons delivery of letters between any two American cities on the day after mailing." The loftiness of this goal explains why, from the early 1960s on into the 1980s, the post office began to invest in a peculiar solution known then as electronic mail today we simply call it a fax. In 1961, in Washington, Chicago, and Battle Creek, Michigan, a service was tried out through which correspondents sent an electronic message; on the other end it was printed out and delivered as a regular piece of mail. The service was dismantled in the early 1960s, then tried out again at the end of the decade between Washington and New York City. The experiment was again short-lived due to lack of patronage.
The post office kept trying, though, as telex machines and the fax began to eat into its market share. A new era of communication was coming, and given that it was already being subsidized at a rate of up to $2 billion a year by the U.S. government, the post office couldn't afford to be behind the curve: early estimates suggested that 17 billion pieces of mail could be electronically redirected by the mid-1980s. In the early 1980s, the post office spent close to a million dollars trying out the "electronic mail" solution between two American cities and several European countries. It was refined and labeled E-COM, "a special service for businesses with a sufficient volume of mail and enough computer capacity to take advantage of it," as described in The New York Times.
To pull it off, the post office turned to an old player in the communications game: Western Union. Organizations that sent large volumes of mail would transmit computer-generated messages over Western Union lines to twenty-five important post offices. Upon arrival, the messages would be printed out and put into envelopes, with the rate at thirty cents for customers who sent fifty thousand letters in four weeks and fifty-five cents for customers who sent only five thousand messages in the same period. It was a bold step into the future but it was ultimately not to be, as the post office kept running into one obstacle: the U.S. government.
Time and again the post office's electronic mail schemes ran into opposition from the Federal Communications Commission, which unanimously blocked its first official attempt to enter the electronic mail age, citing a lack of data from Western Union, which had applied for a license to carry mail over wires on the post office's behalf. The FCC also believed that since the mail had been sent electronically, it fell under its jurisdiction, not the post office's. Later the Justice Department, the Commerce Department, and senators beholden to large industry fought against the scheme. The program was short-lived. Begun in 1982, it sent 16 million messages per year; it was folded in 1985. As a result of its failing, today we can send e-mail without a stamp.
The Ultimate Destruction of Space
As the post office discovered, systems, especially those that deal with the shipment and transportation of tangible objects, have a terminal velocity. Conveyor belts can spin only so fast before the objects they're transporting fly off. Trucks and buses have to obey speed limits; aside from the now-defunct Concorde, commercial airliners' speeds have remained constant for decades. Mail that is electronic on one end and physical on the other as E-COM was, its regulatory issues aside solves only half the problem. The second a letter was printed out, it crashed into the bedrock of reality and slowed to a crawl.
In order for terminal communicative velocity to be reached, however, time and space didn't just have to be destroyed, they needed to be reinvented. Mail, by closing the gap between California and Connecticut, let alone Calcutta and the Cotswolds, began to bring about this change. The written word became an intimate tool that everyone could use, and as a result the sphere of intimacy expanded. But the lightning bolt that truly changed our sense of time was the telegram, which didn't just speed up words but instituted a kind of new reality one that found an echo in the burgeoning newspaper industry, on battlefields, and in that mundane symbol of modern man: timepieces.
Copyright © 2009 by John Freeman